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Gilberto Câmara: For a new space program

Gilberto Câmara, director-general of the Inpe, proposes a space program aimed at the national needs

The closed circle in which Brazilian space research takes place began 2006 under spotlights. Two facts contributed towards this. The first is the imminent trip of Lieutenant-Colonel Marcos Pontes into space. After eight years, he should embark at the end of this month on Russian spaceship Soyuz 10 for a spell on the International Space Station. The second fact was the nomination of electronic engineer Gilberto Câmara to the post of director-general of the National Institute for Space Research (INPE).

The attention given to the first Brazilian astronaut is easy to understand – it is even foreseeable. But promotion to director-general at Inpe does not usually call attention. Normally, the person who runs the institute does not have a habit of making polemical declarations or of awakening the curiosity of the scientific community. Chosen by a Search Committee of the Ministry of Science and Technology, Gilberto Câmara, 49 years old, began his term of office in a different way. Straightaway on taking office, in December 2005, he invited himself to talk to other researchers at the head office of the Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science (SBPC), in São Paulo, at the beginning of this year. At this meeting, he set out the line of his management: a space program the size of Brazil has to be fought for. Or, in other words: the national technological programs need to be aimed at Brazilian needs. “It’s not just putting an astronaut into space” he said at the time. He also declared himself to be open to criticisms and suggestions that the scientific community may wish to make about the institute or the programs carried out there.

Born in Fortaleza, Câmara was educated at the Technological Institute of Aeronautics (ITA) and did the whole of his career at Inpe, which he entered in 1980. In the last few years, he has been leading the geoprocessing research and development team, and he coordinated the Observation of the Earth, a center at Inpe that is working in the fields of remote sensing and geoprocessing, surveys of natural resources, and monitoring of the environment. He has published four books and over 120 articles, besides texts on scientific and technological policy and popularization of science. He is married to Vera Lúcia, with whom he had a daughter, Anita, a 20-year old philosophy student.

His interest for science is rivaled by his passion for music. “Man’s best friend isn’t the dog. It’s iPod. iPod is the digital dog” he says, referring to the digital music and video player, in practice a portable computer the size of a small radio that can store thousands of bands. Câmara listens to music the whole time: in the car, at work, when walking. He even created a blog where he tries to disseminate contemporary erudite music. In it, he writes about Iannis Xenakis, Pierre Boulez or Béla Bartók, amongst others. In short, an eclectic engineer.

Since you took up the post of director-general at Inpe, you have preached a repositioning of the Brazilian Space Program to adapt it to the country. What has to change?
Today, we have a question that sends us back to the logic of technological development that Brazil had in the 1970s and 1980s. The major technological programs of those years, like the nuclear, space and IT programs, for example, had a logic that followed the import replacement model. We ought to have technology here, because Brazil was going to be autonomous in each one of these areas. The idea was: first, I develop all of the technology, afterwards I hand over the results to society. This was a bit the logic of the policy on information technology. A high price was paid for having a computer, while the technology was being developed in Brazil. This model is in a crisis. I say that, with this model, Brazil is at the service of the program. The national programs today need to be aimed at Brazilian needs. They have to convince society that they are going to result in concrete, swift and operational benefits. And following this convincing, society has to be willing to finance technology. That is what I call a program at the service of Brazil, or a space program that is the size of Brazil.

Can you give some examples?
What does “the size of Brazil” mean?” It is something that is not going to go away, something that does not get lost.  It is the geographical dimensions that we have (for example, the Amazon), the environmental dimensions (for example, the Pantanal( swampland , the Cerrado (savanna), the northeastern Semi-Arid, our cities). It is also the dimensions of economic demand from Brazilian society, in the question of telecommunications and GPS [Global Positioning System]. All these are needs of Brazilian society met by the space program. The most obvious example is fighting the deforestation of the Amazon, in which the space program has an important contribution.  What improvements can we do to new sensors and satellites for our capacity for monitoring, controlling and preventing deforestation in the region to be even greater? This is a program that sets off from Brazil’s necessity, and not from the replacement of imports or of technology. That is what I call a program the size of Brazil.

This change does not depend only on Inpe, but also on the Brazilian Space Agency and the Ministry of Science and Technology. How do you deal with this question?
The Americans have a term for this: evangelization. Or, as we used to call it before: winning hearts and minds. This question is a debate that has to be made public. We want to show that we have a coherent, stronger space program, which will bring benefits, such as a greater technological capacity. I’m going to give you an example: today, we have the Real Time Deforestation Detection system, the Deter, which uses American Terra and Acqua satellite images. According to NASA, they will have a useful life of another three years. If we want to carry on with a capability for monitoring the Amazon in real time after this time limit, we will have to find a solution. That suggests that we must launch, in 2009, one or more satellites that give us this capacity on a daily basis. That is excellent, because it points to a firm date. And a defined date is the best thing for a program. Programs merely aimed at technology can always be postponed, because, after all, technological autonomy does not have a date to be achieved. Then we can postpone one, two, three years, as happened with several extremely important programs in Brazil. As in the nuclear area, for example. It’s always a reason for the economic area of the government to say: “Ah, but it doesn’t have a date, if it’s only a question on technological autonomy, we can wait another year.”

The problem is that these major technological projects are always jeopardized by the lack of money, which gives margin to more postponements.
Actually, by establishing targets and dates what we are establishing are challenges. With the proper mixture of technology made in Brazil and some absorption of technology from outside, we are going to manage to meet them. What the history of engineering in the world shows is that the great successes were done following very firm targets established in a timetable. The engineers are forced to use all their skill, all their creativity, to solve the problem. The classic example is Sony’s discman, a famous case of engineering. The head of Sony’s engineers had a small wooden box made and told his team: “I want a CD player that has the dimensions of this box and weighs less than 1 kilo. I don’t care whether you put cicadas or crickets inside the box, but find a way of it producing sound. And I want this in one year.” It was done.

In one year?
In one year. The story became famous. The engineers, during the sleepless small hours, went so far as to consider replacing the box by another larger one. But they didn’t do so and built what was asked for. There are other examples in which time was a restriction and even so the objectives were attained by the established time limit.

This is an example from the private area, used  to deadlines  and competition. In the public case, we know that the complications and lost sleep are greater.
There’s no doubt. But what happens is that there is an enormous restriction from the economic policy and even, by extension, from society towards technological programs without a date. The essential thing is for a target to exist, and for it to be a target of the Brazilian State. With this, we have a chance – not meaning to say that we will always have success – of influencing the government, to convince it that there will be a benefit for society, and for this reason the targets of the timetable have to be met. Unfortunately, the argument that “science and technology is good for Brazil” has reached its limit for financing.

That is, merely speaking well of science and technology does not solved anything.
Nothing, nothing. This discourse has arrived at the level of triviality, that is to say, it is accepted by everyone, nobody queries it. The danger of an argument of this kind is that it is self-exhausting. There have to be tangible assets on the horizon, palpable benefits, and then we will have no difficulties for financing.

Is this valid for science and technology in general?
Yes, it is. One example that is a success, in the case of Inpe, is the Weather Forecast and Climatic Studies Center, the CPTEC (the Portuguese acronym). We established a center that, right from the start, had an operational nature. It wasn’t a research center in supercomputing for numerical weather forecasting, which was going to generate qualification for an operational service in the future. The CPTEC had to generate weather forecasts, in a given investment timescale, that would substantially improve Brazil’s capacity in this sector. And what happened? Today, we have the weather forecast from Inpe, which every day is on the television news programs of Rede Globo ( the main Tv station n Brazil). Our forecast for four, five and even six days is very good. We created a center that had the target of arriving at the forecast in the media. It was this that helped us to get investments and that even led us to combine research with operation at a level that is different from the one that the universities, traditionally, and even government research institutes are accustomed to work on.

Anyhow, basic research has by principle great elasticity, a way of working that does not take in account this operationality that you want.
We are not talking of basic research. Small science, which is the science of basic research, of the researcher, has a universal logic. We are talking of major national programs that have a nature of government investment. These are programs in which Brazil is working with big technologies of big sciences. When I say that the space program has to have the size of Brazil, and not Brazil to have the size of the program, I am saying that we have to turn around the logic of operating a program with large investments like the space program.

There is a question that has been much discussed in the last few months. Researchers from the area and even Minister Sérgio Rezende, of Science and Technology, have increasingly relativized the trip of Lieutenant-Colonel Marcos Pontes to space. Couldn’t the US$ 10 million spent with this operation have been used in another direction with more palpable results?
The funds invested in the astronaut are small when compared with the level of investment we have in the space program. Accordingly, the money that we would be saving with the astronaut not going would not solve any problem. It is not the case of ceasing to make a satellite to launch an astronaut. From this point of view, the great merit of the flight of the Brazilian astronaut is to conquer the hearts and minds of society. The objective is to say “we have capacity for having a space program” in the same way as was done in the United States, in Russia and in China. It’s a small investment compared to the volume of funds of the program, compared to the exposure in the media that the fact is having and to putting it into the head of Brazilian society that the space program can be pacific, civil, and connected to the universities.

The mission is accused of having little scientific importance.
In scientific terms, the importance of what the astronaut will do is limited by the very restrictions of a manned mission with experiments in space. This goes for the manned program as a whole, it isn’t only in Brazil. There is hardly anything in space that cannot be done by robots or by automatic elements. Amongst these few things are experiments like those the astronaut should be doing. It so happens that one of the main motivations of a manned program is the conquest of space by man. It is important for Brazil to signal its participation in this project.

In these 45 years of a space program, Brazil has produced on its own two satellites, made another two in cooperation with China, and advanced in the development of propellant material. But it has also had its set-backs, like the three satellite launch vehicles that didn’t work out. Considering the time and what was spent in the period, do you think that the balance is positive?
The investment in the space program has an important characteristic: it needs time limits. The SCD-1 and the SCD-2, which are data-collecting satellites, and the CBERS, are cases in which we met targets. The target of having a launch vehicle continues to be important. And the very review that was done of the launcher program is pointing out shortcomings that, everything indicates, are being made good by the new generation of launchers designed by the Aerospace Technical Center, the CTA. I hope that we manage to solve this problem. But the main thing of this story was to have, in the process of constructing satellites, also constructed institutions. In this case, Inpe is a good example that tries to bring together the relevance of what it does and the quality of its works. Inpe has a working logic, which includes postgraduate programs, of training people, of research, which constructs a strong bond between research and operation. This logic made it possible to construct a weather forecasting center and to disseminate remote sensing technology in Brazil. Today, we have a great knowledge about meteorology, climatology, space geophysics, remote sensing and geoinformation by virtue of Inpe’s work. The conquests are not limited to the satellites. In the long term, one of the most important results is producing institutions that give a return. Even if all the satellites had failed, Inpe would still have a strong return, because we didn’t just make satellites – we made all the technologies and researches associated with this satellite program.

You said to Pesquisa FAPESP, in 2003, soon after the Alcântara accident, the following sentence: “There are no cheap paths to cutting edge technology, which costs dear in terms of investment, people and national commitment.” You complained that the space program never had investments in keeping with it.
Or that the investments that are placed are not sufficient for the size of the program. I continue to have this idea. That sentence is the motivation by which I say that the space program has to have the size of Brazil. When it does so, the program has to get results that convince society to place investments in the magnitude that we need. We want to make an Earth observation satellite that has a capacity for imaging the whole world, including Brazil, time after time. We also want it to function operationally, with reliability, over several years. It is not just a question of launching and working once – that does not attend to any program of society, because it will not be capable of giving the information that it needs.

Is Brazilian spending comparable with that of other developing countries?
The Brazilian space program today has a level of US$ 100 million a year. China spends more than US$ 1.5 billion, India is spending US$ 600 million. It’s a brutal difference. We consider that, in a country of the size of ours, this program does not reflect what it could be to attend to society. Except that for us to convince society – and the Ministers of Planning and Finance as well – that we have to have a budget comparable to India’s budget, it is necessary to show that there will be very concrete benefits. It is not enough to say that they have a budget six times larger than ours.

Are there real chances of the space program being fully resumed this year?
I think that they are real. Inpe is working arduously on finalizing the CBERS-2B satellite, in collaboration with China, for launching this year, or at the most at the beginning of next year. We are building the CBERS-3, whose launch should occur at the end of 2008 or beginning of 2009. That indicates that we have a full workload. Our teams are working with much perseverance to keep the timetable of the program within the requirements of society. The CBERS cannot stop. So, CBERS-2 has now been in the air for almost two years, and we have to have CBERS-2B in the air in time for, when CBERS-2 completes its useful life, it to come into operation already.

Let’s talk now about Inpe as an institution. How will the relationship be with the Brazilian Space Agency, with the changes that occurred last year, when Inpe’s budget started to be subordinated to the agency?
I think that the changes have a lesser impact than has been said. The most important thing today is that there is a way of working in which Inpe knows what its mission is and the agency knows what its is. The agency is the great body for space policy. It’s where the macro decisions are taken, of the “let’s do a program with China” kind, “let’s make a data-collecting satellite”, “let’s make a launcher in cooperation with Russia.” And, on deciding what is going to be done, to choose whether it will be the CTA or Inpe, which are the bodies for carrying them out. I think that, if everybody knows how to work together, there is a possible, necessary and positive synergy between the agency and the Inpe. Although Inpe is not subordinated to the agency, it is the agency that defines the space program. On this matter, Inpe cannot take decisions alone. That is to say, if we want changes or adjustments to the program, we have to convince the agency that they are necessary.

So there we have, then, an organization chart problem?
I don’t believe so. At least, not as something fundamental. The agency, for me, represents the government. You can say that the agency is the government body that tells Inpe what the limits of its work are. An institution of Inpe’s size is conditioned by external factors. Everything we do is negotiated. It is unviable for me to transfer the autonomy of a university laboratory, where the researcher has the complete freedom of research with his pupil for defining the doctoral thesis, to an institution the size of Inpe. It is unviable for us to imagine being able to simply decide what to do off the top of our head. If we want to influence Brazil, we have to accept Brazil influencing us. We cannot have a glass dome attitude, of saying “we know what Brazil needs.”

That leads us to another question. Generally speaking, the scientific community regards Inpe as a very much closed institute, of vertical decisions, not very permeable to debate. Why has this happened?
I think that this perception is absolutely correct. Inpe has an unsuccessful encounter with society and has homework to do, which is to be available for dialog and to criticism for all sectors of society, with the scientific community included there. Inpe has a tradition of not exposing itself to debate, of closing in on itself, being self-referenced, self-sufficient. That is not satisfactory for the days we are in. The institution has a tradition of being a bunker, a casemate.

Does this tradition have something to do with some kind of militarization of the institution?
Not directly. Inpe is not running, has not run, and will not run the risk of militarization. But this has to do with its heritage. Obviously, the space program was born within a locus that has a military heritage, which is São José dos Campos. Up until today, there is an enormous military and strategic logic in the city, which has never had a public university. This makes the difference.

The fact that São José dos Campos is, of the technological cities of São Paulo, the only one that does not have a large-sized public university, whether state or federal, makes all the difference. We do not have a space for debate here. São José is a city of engineers. We lack sociologists. An engineer does not like discussing, justifying himself. What he really likes is making. So, for him it does not matter who is telling him to make, the important thing is for him to make the artifact, be it a satellite, a bomb, an aircraft or a computer. The engineer’s realization lies in the act of realizing, constructing.  The lack felt of having a broader, humanistic intellectual reflection, which is what a public university in São José dos Campos would bring, is enormous. By perpetuating in the city and in Inpe the logic of the engineer who does not discuss and who makes, the bunker mentality is created. But this cannot continue. I was the first director of Inpe to go to the SBPC to debate openly with the scientific community. And I am going to do this always with everyone, in a clear and open manner. It’s very convenient not to have to give anyone any satisfaction. Democracy is hard work.

Internally, is there no council to receive this pressure from below?
Today, there is a Technical-Scientific Council (CTC), but we are resizing its role in such a way that the in-house members of the council have a much greater capacity for influencing the actions of the directors than they had in the past. With frequent meetings, with discussions, with in-house debates. I am the first director at Inpe to answer an employee’s e-mail, just to give you an idea. When we are not willing to discuss, debate does not exist.

What are the scientific priorities for the next ten years, to 2015?
We are starting a program of planning for the institution, for which we are able to count on the support of the Management and Strategic Studies Center (CGEE), of the Ministry of Science and Technology, and of Unicamp’s Scientific and Technological Policy Department. It’s a program that will involve diagnoses of the internal and external environments, which will lead to the definition of great targets for the next decade. Already in existence, put as a fundamental scientific challenge for Inpe, is the creation of what we are calling for the time being the Terrestrial System Science Center, one of the responses that Brazil has to give to the challenge of understanding what the global changes are and how they are going to affect society. It is something that joins the capacity of climatic modeling for the future, the process of global changes, to the capacity for understanding the changes in the use of the land and others that man is bringing about in nature. We have to understand the conditioners of these changes, as well as the consequences of this on the human environment. This science of the terrestrial system is a multidisciplinary science which Inpe today has a part of. We have today some very good groups in meteorology and climatology, in remote sensing, and one other in geophysics. There is a lack of good groups in human sciences. But they will yet be part of Inpe in 2015, inside a multidisciplinary and multi-institutional center. The introduction of the Terrestrial System Science as a discipline of work and as a target is an imposition of the global changes on Brazil. Once again; it is a program the size of Brazil. Brazil is one of the countries that have the greatest potential for being negatively affected by the global changes. While Russia may have a less cold steppe, we are going to have a hotter Cerrado. Our agriculture can accordingly suffer a lot from the climatic conditions, just as agribusiness and the availability of water for our cities, for example.

Are you thinking of these projects in the medium term?
We have to install this kind of competence by 2015, to think about the Brazil of 2030, 2040, 2050. But the dream is built one day at a time. Inpe has a tradition of multidisciplinary work. What is missing is to put together the jigsaw puzzle to construct this Terrestrial System Science Center. Is it possible for us to be hiring  sociologists one day? Of course, I was once a supervisor of three architects doing postgraduate studies. One of my research projects is FAPESP’s Public Policies project, with the postgraduate center in social service in the PUC of São Paulo, with Professor Aldaíza Sposatti. So don’t be startled if one day Inpe opens up vacancies for hiring sociologists and anthropologists.